Interactive Streaming

“Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf and of good friends like Elrond go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures…
-The Hobbit

 In a post I shared earlier this year, I explored PvE as a business and community driver through competitive play especially in light that the idea many of us old timers recall was Jimmy Woods in the 1989 film, The Wizard.

Taugrim, a faithful reader and blogger commented that one of the inhibitors is that while PvE can be responsive and dynamic, it can be overly scripted leaving PvP the pie slice of unpredictable game play, which can be argued as more enjoyable to watch or require a different level of skill?

In today’s post, I would like to explore interactive streaming as we look back, look at, and look ahead at MMORPGs.


Looking Back – When Theme Parks Out-scripted Game Masters

If you ever sat down with a pencil, paper, and a handful of dice, you usually did so with a group of friends who worked together and responded to the Game Mater’s unfolding story. The pace was slower, but it was real-time, often taking the GM off script, and you got a real sense of every person contributing to your outcome.

When MMOs attempted to replicate this in large scale, it actually traded a personal story or a guild adventure for prefabricated content that was repeatable to any player. Timelines got warped as history of a world in a MMO were at some meta level, but individually you never lost your place in time. All your actions were relevant to you, and meant little to anyone else.

Naturally, when you spend resources to develop content, you want it to go as far as possible. You want the theme park ride to be replayed over and over and attract people who can enjoy exactly what everyone else has. The ratio of developers to consumers could never be attuned to justify non-repeatable content or potentially world impacting consequnces.

Around my 3rd MMO Lord of the Rings Online, I wrestled with this. I actually praised them for taking players throgh story content that was outside of the main thread (as that was predicatable and known). I actually made the mistake (many times) that Turbine as-was would be open to player contibuted content, and on several occassions I offered ideas where players could earn the right to create small stories, quests, dungeons that other players could run (similar to RTSs that enabled map building). I also suggested deed rewards that failfull players could earn to be even sought out or significant named characters in LotRO’s Middle Earth that had a sandbox reason for interacting with players outside of trade or LFG.

These ideas prior to even the sandbox MMO approach fell on deaf ears at Turbine.


Looking At – Storytelling and Encounters are Unidimensional

Sandboxes answered in part some call to a dynamic world that was scripted by players. Twitch evolved to become a business model where people watched people play games, post comments/chat.

Be that as it may, Sandboxes fall short of truly impacting content especially in storytelling or player designed content. They tend to be PvP based as well. Their player driven content tends to be impacting things like skill/class builds, the economy or settlements. Twitch interactions have little to no impact on outcomes of a player’s choices or encounters.

Developers in MMOs today who tell good story/lore, leave this to their own end, which results in linear tracks with somewhat long cycle times of new chapters. Moreover, dungeon crawls that can be highly scripted evolve slower and only break one dimensional plays by offering scaling as responsive to the level of a player or the number of players. Guild Wars 2 makes an honest shot at this, but still falls short of the nostalgic table top RPG GMvPlayer responsive and unpredictable dynamic.

Storyteller, a game with some notariety that did not end up going live, it offered a comic like sequence built on players adding items and characters into the frames for an open ended solution puzzle. It’s inspirational in its design approach as it consider the player as a contributor, and breaks the mold of linear scripting.


Looking Ahead – Storytelling as Collaborative, Interactive, and Unpredictable

How can the ratio of developer to consumer be overcome to produce unpredictable and responsive PvE? Stop trying to think outside the box, but rather redefine the box. Turn back to your players!

What if players could earn ranks, buy ranks, or have some other mechanism that earned them the controls to enemy skills, enemy types, adventure twists, or consequential outcomes to your avatar’s struggles, history, or reputation? Not only that, but do so real-time.

What if developers created not just linear and predicable content, but also tool-kits that enabled and empowered players to design and drop content and lore real-time into the world? Remember when player housing was simply hooks on walls? Players had some freedom to decorate, but it was linear scripted to have certain size furnishings in predefined places. MMOs began to change this. They build the engine stylized, and some games like Wildstar actually made available to players nearly everything that the world builders had used in design.

Perhaps their is hope. With Amazon’s recent acquisition of Twitch, they are asking themselves how to be Twitch if they were to design a MMO. New World suggests a world where players on Twitch could interact with players in game in a meaningful way. It’s a sandbox, but it seems of their 3 recently announced games to be one more focused on traditional PvE.

Since this blog is about the dialectic, I am interested in your thoughts. Do you think PvE suffers from lack of interactive content, world changing content, or repeatable content? Do you think Amazon’s New World is headed in a new direction for sandbox MMOs?

Cheers,

Wise

PvE RIP?

“50,000! You scored 50,000 points on Double Dragon?”

Corey (Fred Savage) The Wizard, 1989

 MMORPG…has it come to mean PvP? When I look over the list of MMORPG “to watch” or even those chronicled, I see PvP and the hitch of “competitive play.” It feels like a flash back to “got an app for that?”

As I have strove to add to the dialog about the MMORPG essentials or Insights into what I thought a crowd of us longed to retain, I struggle as I Look At what is upon us or nearly upon us. I still hope, I still challenge us by Looking Back so we can influence and hope for how to Look Ahead.

Looking Back – When Flannels & Burks Brought this Idea of Competitive Game Play

I remember this moment when I was looking for flannels in my father’s closet, gravitating toward Birkenstocks, and thinking “when would I have ever considered this possibility.” It was akin to this idea in 1989 when The Wizard introduced an idea of Competitive Video Game Play…and that people would enjoy watching someone else play a video game. It was surreal….but I wanted to be Jimmy Woods, the unpredictable kid who did recognized and enjoyable feats on a video game.

Here was this concept that “getting points” or “warping” to some new challenge was enough not only a spectator sport, but WORTH DOING, and the game environment itself provided enough challenge to hold interest, drop jaws, and make you feel warm and fuzzy.

I may never have made it to Los Angeles on a giant stage with 1000s of peeps cheering me on, but I enjoyed sooo many moments in MMORPGs with my friends taking on and down a challenge some crazy dev engineered…and not just for me conceptually, but for a group together. That developer in turn I bet likely enjoyed watching the forums or YouTube consuming different approaches to beating his/her puzzle. It was not formulaic, it was dynamic. The players inspired the developers, the developers pushed the players. The Environment was not merely predictable, it was responsive. Knowing thyself, knowing your team, and understanding your options, and coordinating became the challenge.

MMORPGs used to get this. They forgot it or they just evolved, and that evolution was not PvE.

Looking At – For the Most Part, PvP is the Name of the Game

Let me clear the airs of potential hypocrisy, I like PvP, I like competitive PvP, I play it. However, when I look at the range of games on the market or ones in the future, its PvP (source below, MMORPG.com).

  • Albion Online: Across 800 different territories guilds can engage in PvP for control of the world
  • Black Desert: Large-scale open world that would hold expansive battles such as castle sieges
  • Blade & Soul: With some of the most action-oriented combat in the genre, plus highly competitive PVP
  • Camelot Unchained: Focuses on Realm-vs-Realm
  • City of Titans: A world of superheroes and supervillains naturally lends itself to PvP
  • Crowfall: Players are expected to compete with one another, with the chance to take the throne in the offering
  • Divergence Online: Third person shooter that mixes the best elements of an MMORPG and a TPS
  • Gloria Victis: The game features an action-based, realistic non-target combat system with exciting PvP
  • Kingdom Under Fire II: Players to engage in RTS combat
  • Life is Feudal: You can take to besieging forts, raiding enemies, or just taking your foes down!
  • Lineage Eternal: Large scale battles, including siege warfare
  • Overwatch: You control one of several heroes in competitive 6-person team shooting matches.

….and so on…many more not mentioned. Likely over 80% I have read through are either open world or PvP Competitive.

This is not confusing to me in terms of how/why this came about. It brings excitement. It promises “unpredictable,” and it apparently draws money and marketing. Why only PvP? The Wizard planted this seed, but it was not in PvP.

And…here is the thing that really gets me about this evolution. PvP does not require or really depend on RPG. In fact, in may ways RPG gets in the way as level playing field become more important. What story driven purpose, progression, or player role really matters that much in PvP? MMORPGs and PvP are an evolutionary consequence, not dependency.  In fact, the more there is in terms of Role Playing in PvP, the less likely  it will be good PvP. PvP and Competitive PvP strengthen the resolve that all classes must be equal for a given situation since that given situation is an arena.

Looking Ahead – Give me a Puzzle, a Team, Milestones, and a Boss…and a Competitor

I am not talking “Wipeout” here. I am not also suggesting that PvP is not a good path to revenue and wide player attraction, but good PvE with competitive could be just as intriguing.

World First, Server First, and certainly Achievement Ranks are all things unofficially or officially leveraged. Guild Wars 2 has done some of this with achievement leaderboards and rank lists. however, it does not go far enough, its a general system covering activity/time investment in the game. In all my PvP non-competitive and competitive play, I have never had the adrenaline or moments of pride I did with my team when we took on and overcame an environment challenge.

I would suggest this is not attractive to all PvE players (anymore than all PvP players want to compete or be ranked), but I am suggesting it may bring a new angle to development or marketing. I can imagine better and more meaningful (and social) announcements, UIs, and the such to players feats, player PvE ranks/achievements, or PvE teams. I would also push farther and suggest that there are Guilds (or were) that would be interested in a new raid/dungeon or puzzle put before them and competing guilds never seen before (like Jimmy’s Super Mario 3) that would put them head to head / real time figuring it out.

Again, I don’t think this has to be “we got an app for that” approach to MMORPG, but as I see  the list of development games (and getting more numerous) seem to be centered on or highly focused on PvP, and this flavor of a competitive angle seems to be the newfangled path to RoI.

In closing, as the purpose of this blog is to encourage MMORPG innovation. I leave this here for consideration, as I get restless with what appears more of the same on the market. I welcome your thoughts, too!

~Wise

Insights, A Year in Review

 

“We believed we should never ask others to back and support us in something we weren’t one-hundred percent committed to ourselves.”

Jeromy “Caspian” Walsh
Owner/Creative Director
Soulbound Studios

It’s been a year since I did a longer download of subjects in my head. There has been lots of personal activity across games, lots of me reading, testing, and supporting new ideas.

I’ve also spent a lot of time playing old games (like 1980’s old) as well as investing my guild into GW2. I even took a journey down memory lane in LOTRO on their player community as a long ago now ex-QA Lead provided a lot of interaction with its once faithful community.

In a time that I think many may be wondering if the MMO of yesteryear has passed, I see a lot of innovation and kindle hope that as the market gets more diversity, what once was with something new to it can still be had or made. I welcome your dialog  and where your time in gaming has been spent as I share a look back, a look at, and a look ahead.

Looking Back – The Answers Sometimes Lay Behind Use

When Wildstar community began to flop, and I was feeling burned by the present what I called “laziness” in MMO innovation, I decided to invest in my then 8 year-old son. I was going to start him into my yesteryear world of video games from the 1980s.

This journey resulted in pulling out many of the highly popular 1980s titles (some which still live on). First and foremost I was having a ton of fun. Second, I was sharing this with my son. Third, I was connecting and refreshing for myself what was so lasting or good in these old titles. (Many of these I have already written about.)

Mark Jacobs in pursuit of Community, Player Collaboration, and Replay I have read had many of his Core/Foundational staff read through old Table-top RPG books to ignite and instill a foundation for creativity and innovation in his new game: Camelot Unchained.

All to say, looking over the last year, while silent here, I have been active in the gaming community and frankly having too much fun to stop and write about it. I also would say to all my readers to try the same (whether old PC or old table-top or old console games) give them a try and think abstractly about what it was that makes that re-playable, lasting, and genuine fun. It may be worth having all these MMO directors and developers do the same and think along the lines that made the start of this entire genre so meaningful to us.

Looking At – The Answers Are Not Always Perfect, But It Inspires Our Innovation

MMOs have drawn me as I have written elsewhere for a long time mostly for the reason of exploration, story, and community (role play). It was hard to stay away. However, I wanted something directional to what I had been writing about and also where my guild may have found some respite.

I chose GW2, and I have not regretted that. It’s not perfect, but here are somethings that I think are going well for it, but also provide some things that are probably core to it that I do not think are ideal.

First, the good:

  • Horizontal Progression – MMOS! You do not need new level caps for progress!
  • Not A Stat War – Action combat, trait selections, skill rotations, non gear centric
  • LAS – Skills by weapons, focused play (not staring at your piano keys of skill selection
  • Exploration based – experience and progress can be largely achieved by just being the world. Not a bunch of senseless questing
  • Guild missions/Guild Hall – more progression and meaningful interaction with rewards
  • Raids, Dungeons, Scaling Instances, and World Events – tons of things to do with others
  • Easy to Recruit – your guild mates who join you a year later do not have a hill to climb and you can start doing meaningful things together on day 1
  • Story – a great and engaging story that is easy to get behind
  • Alt friendly – many account wide perks that make leveling alts fun (instead of a chore)
  • Achievement Tracking – This is often overlooked in MMOs or not given full scale focus. It is well thought out here and more than satisfactory.
  • Art Direction – I have no idea why this game goes unrecognized for its art direction, but the stunning art is breathtaking
  • Free – yes the expansion costs money (and it is worth it), but the game is 100% free without limits to content

And Much More…

It is also listed #13 in most played games (not just MMO) on Raptr and was in gameradar’s #3 spot of top25 MMOs.

Second, the opportunities…

  • Loot – this may be a good for many, but for me its TOO MUCH
  • Trinity – while some group content is becoming more role based, there is no dedicated healer, tank, cc, or dps. This is a set-back to me, but it is core to the game and they expect everyone to be contributing in all ways
  • MOBA – while I love the PvP in this game, I did not list it as a good because I think it gets harder for games to balance classes over pvp and pve and its investment becomes harder as it diversifies its focus

I find that this is a game that will grow, it has been with us for 3+ years, and it has a solid following. There is a ton to do and engage players. No matter your # of friends online there is always some type of content you can do that leads to progression.

Looking Ahead – The Answers May Mean Risks Never Before Taken

IGN recently put out its top 2016 titles to watch here, but I am looking beyond that to things that I have written about here and would like to see developed.

Two years ago Chronicles of Elyria began to surface visibility, and this month they announced their launch of crowdfunding. You can learn more about it here.

For started here is what excites me about this game (and what I hope other MMOs consider and rethink).

  • Family Legacy
  • Art Direction
  • Aging & Death – yes you will die!
  • Classless, but skill based
  • Risk and Reward system
  • RTS/AARPG

Even if you do not think you will play it, I would encourage you to contribute to it from an innovation side of the equation. We need more innovation like this, and I wish Southbound Studios all the best!

In closing, I would love to hear from you and what you are playing or would like to see be created! In upcoming issues on this blog I will be having some interviews. Keep reading, keep the dialog going, and most importantly keep playing those MMORPGs and contributing to the community!

~Wise

THE “R” IN MMORPG

A lot of young players don’t really know much about the history of the game and a lot of them are missing out on what the game is all about, especially the whole concept of sportsmanship and teamwork.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Q&A: Kareem on teaching, the Lakers, and Tim Duncan
John Hareas, NBA.com
Mar 10, 2009; 5:06pm

The “R” in MMORPG has been perhaps the cornerstone of MMOs or solo RPGs, but its evolution in recent years has put potentially at risk more than one may suspect. While the theatrical sense of “role-playing” is also valuable whether it be table-top, MMO, or your flavor of the year RPG, it is not that dimension I mean for this month’s article. It is rather, the unique function an individual contributor brings to a group of players or the massive environment in which an avatar roams. This month as we look back, look at, and look ahead, I am looking forward to the dialectic and your insights on the evolution and impact of “roles” in playing MMORPGs.

Looking Back – It Wasn’t Really About “Button Smashing”

There was a time when endless online polls would be pinned on MMORPG forum with subject lines: “What class will you play?” Playing a class meant something and not just your identity or the identity you wanted to roam around in on your favorite MMORPG. It meant you had boons and you had banes, it meant you had an array of choices relative to your approach to an encounter, and it meant that some encounters your chosen class was superior against or feeble against.

The “Holy Trinity” as it is often called was always there (I can even think far back to 8-bit console RPGs scratching my head why my healer in the front of the pack was being smashed and killed all the time…then I got it…this other member of my party was supposed to be in front because he was the heavy armour “tank!” Before, you check the box of your favorite MMO with a “holy trinity..got that,” consider that it was not just Aggressor, Healer, Damager, as the “role” there were (in good MMORPGs) complicated nuances to each classes approach and arsenal that made it way more than 3-dimensional.

I’ll mention two MMORPGs in the last decade, but I’ll talk about one. Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) and Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) were really two MMORPGs that in their early days understood classes. With the launch of Shadows of Angmar in 2007, LotRO started the game with seven classes (Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master, and Minstrel), with its first big expansion Mines of Moria, it added two more (Rune-keeper and Warden), and in recent years added a tenth (Beorning). It’s less important to understand what each of these classes did, but rather to understand that through roughly its first three expansions they had distinct abilities, banes/boons, and ROLES. In fact, LotRO actually had archetypes that they early held on as “Basic,” “Moderate,” and “Advanced” as another way of growing or approaching a role’s potential. Classes had primary and secondary roles, banes and boons, race restrictions, and a time when the main healing class at launch (Minstrel) had a painful process of leveling. Choice mattered…it mattered in terms of what class you were, whether your raid/group had one, it mattered what skill rotations you used in unique situations, and it allowed for different approaches based on combinations of what you group had…with most raids really having a purpose for each class.

There were perhaps needless debates about whether you needed a certain archetype (tank, healer, damage), but it was the case in raids within those first few years rather extremely beneficial if not in some cases necessary to bring one of at least each class (notice I did not say archetype) and a failure could be manifested by a player not doing their “job” that is “role!” Design approach had great diversity in playing to certain roles through certain mini-bosses, “trash-pulls,” or phases on a major dungeon/raid boss. In other words, the design of the group encounters (and even some open play areas) considered the classes. Moreover, it did not just approach design as “this is the formula we developed to defeat this boss or this is the linear path you must follow from entrance to exit,” rather, it allowed for diversity, success, and openness to whether you went right or left or whether you infinitely crowd-controlled an opponent or defeated it.

The outcome of this was replay, coordination, well designed encounters, thoughtful approach, trial/error, and meaningful alternate class play. Moreover, while some may think in PvMP mirrored classes were a mandate, good Role-play does not require that. It may mean several “class-updates,” but not knowing what an opposing force has or can do with skills/traits is part of the challenge (and if that meant imbalance for a season, then that is just part of design).

Looking At – The Age of Speed “Runs” & Simplification

I won’t proceed to put any specific game on trial while we look at, I’ll subtly pass by saying LotRO did not sustain that design principle unfortunately and went the way of most modern MMORPGs.  Instead, I’ll stick to the main themes that influence most of the modern designs. Those themes are: accessibility and time.

Modern MMORPGs are few in count that have true Classes. They say they have them, but in many cases they are archetype level roles with variable animations. In some cases, it’s a semantic play of calling the same skill two different names. Some have kept the Holy Trinity…many have not…but where it does live a player will find an often crude rather simple version with little depth. The drive for business cases or market share pushed developers to simplify. It drives decisions toward accessibility. It requires regret-less player choice for fear of player attrition. These designs are exemplified in hundreds of available skills for players to choose from, few boons/banes, homogenized roles to maximize encounter availability and “Looking for Group” engines. Fueled by the philosophy of gating progression through gear/stats instead of player aptitude, class design in many modern MMORPGs is not really about a role. It’s about a flavor of ice-cream (“Race” selection long abandoned banes/boons in favor of cosmetic appeal). “What does it look like when I attack” rather than “is this something I should attack?” Even where the Holy Trinity can be found today, modern MMORPGs run “Damage Engines” to make sure every class can hit roughly the same numbers when “traited” that way, and retreat toward something rather basic in its diversified approach like range of attack (short, medium, long) as its staple distinction.

Attrition is perhaps also brought about by the amount of investment required. Today’s MMORPGs strive for speed, and while accessibility is a factor of this, the hamster revolution is what it feeds. The need to simplify to attract and hold players is part of it, but the need to not require long play times for meaningful results is the entrée. Immersion and approach are no longer primary design principles for player enjoyment/attraction/retention; results and loot are their replacements. Modern MMORPGs appeal toward the slot machine players and rarely the poker table players. This results in class, and therefore encounter design decisions. Looking for that one role that may be needed or that player that has figured out their class (or investing in your guild/players to make them better at their class) is all yesteryear. Time investment trumps, and classes must have full DPS, or full options in survivability (whether that is healing, damage avoidance, or crowd-control). In many cases, “tanking” let alone “healing” may not be needed – “We’re gonna Zerg-run it team!” What starts with homogenized or basic or boon-less/bane-less class design, then leads toward linear encounter design, button-smashing approaches, and YouTube hits for One Zerg to Rule Them All guides.

Looking Ahead – Role-Centric & Diversified Adventure Approaches

It starts with design philosophy long before class design. I covered much of this is my last blog. Designing for a more narrow player base may be the only sustainable way of avoiding steady trends in any new MMORPG down the path of homogenization or marginal class distinctions. I think it is wise to focus less on how much content you put in the rat maze, and more on depth and replay. Total game play time may mean less if class design was very meaningful and if it encounters were designed with variable class-group make-ups or remembering it was about “Role-playing!”

I am looking ahead to that MMORPG where it’s not just about obtain skill, and smash button, and it’s not just about gear. It’s about learning skills, rotations, dynamic play when partnered with other classes, and coordinated attacks that play out different scenarios. I want bringing my class and me as a player to mean more than do I have gear. Gear can matter (at least horizontally), but it should not be an E-ticket to beating a dungeon. Rather, it should be a complex soup with each player performing their unique role where it is not overly simplified by one or two “tanking,” one or two “healing all the unavoidable damage or mistakes,” and the remainder just grenade launching the target (while replacing a key-board every six months).

I believe a player should be a hero, but not the divine’s Immaculate Conception able to do everything with no need for friends

Perhaps one of my greatest joys in playing an MMORPG is learning how many different guilds/teams figured out their way to proceeding through and defeating an encounter. It was more than a YouTube channel in my early MMORPG days for a “walk-through guide.” Those times are infrequent these days. Linear/formulaic approach, “speed runs,” everything is possible for every class philosophies are predominate. I looking ahead for something I’ve seen before in the past. What do you want to see in class design? I welcome your thoughts….it’s a dialog after all!

COMMUNITY STARTS WITH…..ME

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on
toward love and good deeds,
not giving up meeting together,
as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…”

-Hebrews 10: 24-25

Community and culture matters, and it starts with me as a player and contributor in MMORPGs. Whether as a player you have spent a material amount of time playing a game title, posting on forums, were a backer in a kicks-tarter (KS), writing guides, using F2P currency, or testing/providing feedback in alphas and betas, you have been part of that game’s direction and development (even if it did not go “your way”). This month as we look back, look at, and look aheadI am looking forward to the dialectic and your insights on the evolution and impact of “community” on MMORPGs.

Looking Back – The Culture of Collaboration and Cooperation Counts

Since Massive Multiplayer games were designed initially on the idea that players could interact with each other and have an impact on each other’s outcomes (cooperation), it brought with it a sense of community development. In addition, the themes, the content, the game’s foundational principles (whether published or not) informed and attracted the player base. Therefore, as player attraction increased or evolved, it naturally had an impact on cooperative play and the culture the game sustained, maintained, or developed.

As a microcosm (like a subculture), Guilds, Kinships, Alliances, etc., created culture bubbles that were in some ways reflective of the game they played, but provided diversity in how players cooperated or collaborated together (like flavors of ice cream or states/provinces in a country). These subcultures though at some end, however, were dependent on the content and culture the game developed and the players it attracted.

Many players have fond memories of MMORPGs games they played I would venture to argue because of the culture, the foundational principles, of the game, or the people they met and with whom they accomplished deeds and feats. I would bet few would think or could even recall in great detail the loot, gear, stats they had month/year on game X, but probably could recall the people and culture that enabled those interactions, accomplishments, laughs, joys, or hardships.

This has not changed radically, I mean to say, the formula is still there because players are people (when they are not bots), and when they log in to play a MMORPGs will interact with other people. Player’s are impacted by culture (they are in fact a part of that culture), the foundational principles (if sustained) influence the players logging on and purchasing subscriptions, and the next thing in the development queue is influenced by the culture. Culture impact and change may not always be obvious, and sometimes it happens so gradually it is hard to detect, but while the formula has not changed radically, I think it is meaningful to surface a few considerations and I believe the MMORPG Era as-was/is will evolve.

Looking At – What Horizontal Development and a Producer/Community Manager Begets

What “horizontal development” has begotten is mediocrity. What a Producer or Community Manager has begotten is what they always have…a culture that is reflective of them. If you as a player are questioning whether a game “feels” right or whether its player base “are your sort of people,” then what you are really reflecting on are the values of a producer and/or community manager. This is not just to pin down the troll that is always grumpy or stating “this sucks or your suck!,” but also the troll who is naively happy and stating unconditionally or without grounds “this is awesome and we’re all lucky!”

Let’s first assess “horizontal development.” Why has it begotten mediocrity? The “Big Box” store approach to MMORPGs (open your gates wide) will at some point rub iron with how many developers, designers, and testers a game company has. This is not a theme park versus sandbox assessment, its really just a fact. Mediocrity has settled into modern MMORPGs because when dealing with a broad spectrum of customers, they develop horizontally and not vertically. This creates friction in the culture as people want different things from the game they play. The result?…they try to influence it or they search for another (take their time/money).

As players have left or played less, MMORPGs have adjusted their pay models, which in turn brings in different customers and again impacts culture. World of Warcraft recently announced an addition to its business model, too. These are indications to players that game title are struggling to hold their population counts (see Raptr), but the result of sustaining them is actually more mediocrity. I am not sure there has to be “one MMO to rule them all” for any game company, instead, I think it needs to have focus and stick with its foundational principles and business model…develop vertically, not horizontally.

Secondly, the impact of culture is heavily begotten by a producer and/or community manager. Much like a subculture (guild leader), the producer or CM is going to set the tone for what players it attracts and what players it keeps. Many games have had excellent communities. I think of Lord of the Rings Online and Dark Age of Camelot to name two. The former, I will say for the record radically changed as its producers and CM changed and those changes (you be the judge) influenced its culture.

Producers have the leadership to sustain its foundational design principles, a community managers has the leadership to sustain the behavior and outlook of its players by being a lighthouse of the game or game company’s values and strategic direction (front man). In a recent interview about Camelot Unchained, Mark Jacobs illustrated this point when he said in response to how friendly backers were even with each other, “It starts with, quite frankly, me. I have tried to set a tone and direction for how our studio is going to treat our Backers as well as other games and companies. I promised anybody who would listen to me during the Kickstarter that once we funded, things were not going to change for the worse in terms of communication and openness with them.”

Looking Ahead – Look no farther than the Producer and Community Manager and It’s Foundational Principles

There are those who believe that MMORPGs will only survive going forward if they are Free-to-play or accessible or serve a broad spectrum, and that players will haphazardly and foolishly bump around looking for a game that has people they enjoy playing with. I could not disagree more with much that is in this article, The Future Of The MMO Is Casual, Accessible And Free-To-Play

When I look ahead, I see the need to focus on a player class (whatever it is) and develop toward that. Set reasonable goals for player population, and be mindful of what you communicate and how you interact with those who communicate. Casual play, or players looking for free games or non-sub games do have a view and likely want something different out of their game. It’s up to a producer to be up front about what their game will be, and not compromise to a new customer base as it will likely mean under serving a player base it currently has.

Stop also treating gamers like they are looking for a free ride, instead develop foundational principles, assess the population you need to sustain that game, and stick with it. We need more MMORPGs, not less. When I look ahead I see a new Era, one that is not the “Big Box,” but rather is developing toward microcosms willing to pay for that developed content. And if the producer can stay true to those principles, and not get over hyped by “more content,” it will also deliver better quality products.

Culture starts with me though as a player, and my influence may be subtle, but it is there. Make your game what it set out to be and seek to add value to its culture. What do you want in your MMORPG culture? What foundational principles are important to you? I want to hear from you.

Cheers,
Wise

“MORE CONTENT!,” THE NOOSE OF THE AAA GAME INDUSTRY?

I think no virtue goes with size;
The reason of all cowardice
Is, that men are overgrown,
And, to be valiant, must come down
To the titmouse dimension.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Titmouse

The quantity of what a MMORPG has to offer continues to be the Achilles heel. It is always going to be the quality. Quality above all else.

More to come later in my thoughts, but this Video does a great job of Looking Back, Looking At, and Looking Forward. Enjoy

http://www.gamespot.com/videos/embed/6423493/

Wise

More “combat” in Action Combat

“One must look both along and at everything.” – C.S. Lewis

 Meditations in a Toolshed.

In my last blog, I addressed some thoughts MMORPG players are communicating relative to hand-eye coordination as well as immersion in action combat MMORPG systems. While the blog aimed and focused on demonstrating that tab-targeting did not have an advantage for immersion or less hand-eye coordination requirements, it concluded with suggesting that action combat systems should be less Mario and more Zelda as well as being much more collaborative and thoughtful in an approach and leverage the classes and abilities within your party for group play. What I want to discuss today and look for your input is how to make choice matter, group play mean working collaboratively and actively in combat, and finally not just merely being a stat and a subject of the random number generators (RNGs). I have a lot to say about RNGs, but that will not be the focus today. Today, I would like to look at, look along, and find our way forward to “combat” and the possibilities of action oriented play within it.

Looking At

When a player thinks about engaging in combat, there are a number of possibilities, but we have been trained that there are primary ones and then there are passive ones that are not part of the player’s direct control, strategy or consideration. I would ask, why do the passive ones, even have to be passive? What are these primary and passive combat actions? The primary ones tend to be with some variances:

  • Attack
  • Control
  • Heal

“Attacking” is what most players do or MMORPGs have trained them to do, but in group play, players have roles. Action combat would mean they are performing these roles in a more action-oriented way. They are aiming their attacks, they are aiming their healing toward the players that need them, or they are aiming or choosing which targets to control or when to coordinate control. “Aiming” has been initiated as a component of action combat systems that differentiates them from tab-targeting games. It means the effect of a hit starts with the player to aim a specific attack at a target (not merely select it), and then complete the skill or action; some action combat MMORPGs do this with telegraphs. “Avoidance” has also been initiated as a more player controlled combat mechanic. Avoidance is not in action combat games a stat that the RNG determines whether a player is hit or not. While I discussed previously that tab-targeting games have quite a bit of hand-eye coordination in them and gave examples of avoiding damage, puddles, area effects and even yes, telegraphs in their early stages, the main difference in action combat games is players may have enhanced movement mechanics: sprints, rolls, high jumps, dodges, flips, dives, duck, etc.. “Interruption” is another combat component that has seen more action-oriented evolution. Interrupts often requiring timing, or range, or specific skills, or sequencing or coordination, (but still rarely require aiming) to prevent another targets skill cast.

Despite these three combat components giving players more action-oriented engagements and results being determined more by a player’s skill than a stat and RNG, action combat games have still not really initiated other combat components (often still passive ones) into the group play. Examples of these may include:

  • Parry
  • Disarm
  • Diffuse
  • Block
  • Deflect
  • Re-direct
  • Cleanse
  • Raise from defeat
  • Level of impact
  • Micro targeting

Players may wonder then, how would one make any of these more traditionally passive or skill button combat components more action-oriented and less RNG? There are a couple of things I would offer.

Defensive type skills could require players to make more choices about rotations and predictive play. A block, diffuse, or deflect could mean a skill use while standing in the direction of the attack (a telegraph) and literally preventing it from hitting other players that would normally take the hit in the area. Movement can still play a large role as a Tank may want to move their target or dive, jump or throw their body in front of another player’s to prevent a random targeted or area effect (AoE) attack by its target. A re-direct or cleanse could mean using the environment or setting up things in the environment that allow a player to move damage to it or move players to it. A totem or banner or enchanted object could be used by pushing an attack at it or it pulling that attack to it. Parry, disarms, micro targeting (head, legs, weapon), or other act/react combat components could make use of gambit-systems. Where weapon action (slash, swing), impact (pierce, thrust, pulverize), partial defensive (parry, disarm), and micro target (belly, head, arm) each have an intentional selection in a cycle of skill builds or motions. My main point is that I think MMORPGs are just at the threshold of what could mean more action combat in a player’s control. However, when looking along some current action combat MMORPGs some changes would need to evolve to allow players this type of interaction.

Looking Along

One of the more currently developed action-oriented MMORPGs is WildStar. It can be helpful to look along an experience to understand what considerations we have looked at above can be applied or understood. WildStar is definitely recognized for having progressed the “action” in action combat approaches to game play. Its “Combat Sandwhich” video series introduced a lot of players to its approach and quickly set itself apart in the genre. In its launch year, it was awarded “Best Combat” by Ten Ton Hammer. Despite these accolades and the progression it provided, it is not perfect, and it has been met with a lot of player criticism. WildStar may or may not have gone madly wrong, but in the very least it can serve a good example of how more “combat” in action combat can be in a player’s control.

I am intentionally not going to talk about all WildStar has to offer. Players can discover this from their website, videos, or just playing the game. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, it is worth trying as an amuse bouche to understand where MMORPGs may go and how they can constantly be improved. What I do want to discuss is where it leaves off or some of the consequences of what it has done.

In an oversimplified description, WildStar has approached most group play contests as: Move, Aim, and Interrupt. If a player can do those three things well, you will generally do well in the game. The group play approach for damage is that damage spread is fairly big or uses a lot of space or the enemies move through a lot of space, while these are adjusted by telegraphs to keep the player meaningfully re-adjusting the aim of its skills, it in its most simple form means nearly every enemy action (and player action) is an Area of Effect damaging skill. The ground lights up with bright red, the player needs to find the hole or edge of the telegraph to avoid taking on damage. Avoidance (movement) becomes paramount. The result of this can also be oversimplified in describing it like a fast played ping pong match or at best a jumping puzzle. It is essentially Mario.

While WildStar respects the “Holy Trinity” of tank, healer, and damage, it has the result that if telegraphs can be avoided, then really only the tank is taking damage, and the healer only needs to heal the tank (generally true and admittedly oversimplified). This choice though to have players fully engaged in a jumping puzzle in group play makes for what I called in my last blog a “me first mentality.” It forces the player to think about their actions (not other player’s) bc if a player “avoids the red,” and keeps the target tanked, the tank healed, and the damage going, then the player’s will be successful. The added consequence that most serious telegraphs if not dodged will result in a player’s defeat or at least no more than 2 mistakes a row, and that  there is no in-combat resurrection press the need for each player to focus on movement and location first and role second. This impedes group or class roles. When there is so much area damage or the need for so much Mario, the Tank role cannot expressly block or prevent damage (even directionally most of the time) on the team that is not equipped nor role played to take damage. Since many of the attacks are AoEs and since not avoiding one or two means death, it leaves the healer few options, they cannot raise the defeated and as often as it is, there may be a series of telegraphs or impossibilities between the player and the healer. This makes it especially hard on new players or on groups with new players…it shifts a burden to learning the fight more than normal since likely 1 players death can mean and entire group’s failure. As for the damage roles, class distinctions begin to mean little. If the rest of the parties role is DPS, then this will mean in WildStar they are to “avoid red,” leverage max damage, and bring interrupts and use in coordination. These damage roles have little to offer to the group as a boon (or a bane for that matter). There is little room for non-healer support roles. Finally, since most damage is area of effect, this goes for players, too. Almost all damage roles’ skills are multi-targets with variable shapes and sizes and ranges of telegraphs. While a minor set-back this does leave more on the table than the average tab-targeting game’s immersion when it comes to player group damage. In other words, there is a mass amount of telegraphic damage taking place on the floor in WildStar (some of it the enemy and some of it friendly), my group’s telegraphs do damage to the enemy anywhere they intersect, but I can stand in them all day long…because they are not “red.”

Now, WildStar does a lot really well with its system, but I think there is room to grow where players can feel less fatigue and more a sense of distinct contribution. Get to the atmosphere of the world created and the enemy the group is fighting and less on the jumping puzzle and straightforward approach to skill/role application.

Looking Forward

MMORPGs have held their grip in the gaming community because it allows players to go deep in a role, contribute to a group in a distinct way, and work together in diverse ways to find various approaches to success. Single path to success in encounters are not optimal. I’d like to see action combat continue, but I want to see “block” mean something more and intentional. I want to parry and re-direct damage. I want more diversity in the trinity without creeping in on tank/healer/damage roles. I certainly want less gymnastics, but I want aiming and dodge to be active not merely stat numbers subject to a RNG. I also want to see mistakes meaning something more than complete failure. An encounter that does not allow for mistakes is not the only way (nor the best in my view) to tighten the reins of difficulty. There are many ways to make an encounter extremely hard without the need of “deathless” achievements. Moreover, mistake-free designs can actually lead to fatigue and frustration and a “one way to rule them all” approach/solution. I want to see group response to a mistake be an option like damage transfer or rescues or raise from the dead. Slower or less AoE damage does not mean easier, but with fewer area damage, it would require more for a damage role to do than aim and attack. It would mean more for a healer than heal tank, and it would mean more for a tank than stand in corner with the enemy. Active moving enemies, re-engaging, active combat defense maneuvers, and other support roles or ways to move damage around that do not always require a new encounter to feel like a jumping puzzle to learn like playing Frogger or Mario.

What do you want to see in the “combat” in action combat? Where would you take these usual passive stats or combat components? I do not disagree with Confucius when he suggested “Better is a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” but I think action combat is still progressing and has some interesting options in front of it. I’d like to hear from you.  What say you?

Cheers,

Wise